How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Europe has reacted swiftly and with great fury to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last week to pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal. The problem is not simply that the Trump administration has undermined one of the signature achievements of European foreign policy but that his inherent volatility, his unpredictability, and most of all his lack of commitment to the transatlantic alliance mean that any act of U.S. disruption is now possible. Righteous indignation is the language of the day, and predictions about the death of the transatlantic alliance abound.
But laments and indignation do not add up to strategy. The real question is not whether Europeans are pissed off but whether they will do anything in response to Trump’s actions. The answer is most likely no.
A CALL TO ARMS—AGAIN
The U.S. withdrawal from the Iranian deal certainly feels like a critical moment in transatlantic relations. For Europeans, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the agreement's formally known, marked a rare instance in which a coordinated effort by the Europeans decisively influenced Washington’s decision on a critical international security issue. Trump’s withdrawal from the deal is therefore not merely a threat to regional stability and nonproliferation but also a repudiation of the notion that Europe can influence the United States on difficult security issues.
Europe has unified around its condemnation of Trump’s decision. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement expressing their “regret and concern” and reaffirmed their intention to continue honoring the deal. The EU itself quickly followed suit in expressing its disappointment, and so far no single European country has said that it supports the U.S. decision.
The reaction in the media has been even more dramatic. The latest issue of the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel featured a cartoonish image of a left hand flipping the bird with Trump’s likeness etched on the middle finger. A related article in the issue noted that “[Europe’s] relationship to the United States cannot currently be called a friendship” and advocated joining the “resistance against America.”
Such anger and frustration are real, but they are not new. Starting with the Suez invasion in 1956, the U.S.-European relationship has gone into a “crisis” once or twice every decade. Indeed, in 2015, during the halcyon days of the Obama administration, Der Spiegel used similar language after it was revealed that the National Security Agency had tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone. “German-American friendship no longer exists,” it wrote. “The chancellor must show Washington a clear sign of resistance. Germany must free itself from this pact.” German officials messaged in backroom seminars that the alliance could never be the same. A few months later it was the same.
U.S. officials have heard this refrain so many times that they have developed a rather jaundiced attitude toward European “resistance.” Their view seems to be that Europeans say all manner of things but never do anything in response, so it is not necessary for Washington to pay much attention. Even during the 2003 crisis over Iraq, a supposedly shining moment of European resistance, 14 EU members actively supported the United States, including Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
Of course, frustrations are mounting and eventually they will matter. But before we confidently assert yet again that “this time is different,” it is worth remembering why the alliance has sustained this frustratingly unequal bargain for so long.
The real question is not whether Europeans are pissed off but whether they will do anything in response to Trump’s actions. The answer is most likely no.
THEY NEED IT MORE
The simple answer is that Europeans need the alliance more than the Americans do. For Europe, the transatlantic alliance is its rock of stability in an otherwise ever-changing world and the foundation on which it has constructed European security and European integration. Shared values and interests, much more so than with authoritarian powers such as Russia and China, also drive the bond.
The United States does value the transatlantic alliance. It wants help on international security issues such as Afghanistan or Syria, and U.S. officials certainly enjoy proclaiming that the United States leads the world. But the reality is that the United States doesn’t need the European alliance for its own security. As Trump has implied many times, the United States can simply walk away from the relationship.
In theory, Europeans could simply band together and provide for their own security. Combined, they have as much economic weight and military power as the United States and far more than any of their potential rivals, including Russia. In practice, they still prefer relying on the United States for their security rather than relying on one another.
The United States, after all, is a distant power with only a passing interest in the internal affairs of Europe. EU countries, by contrast, are deeply involved in one another’s affairs—they have multiple internal disputes that range from how to deal with their common currency to how to manage immigration. They look to their relationship with the United States not simply for security from external threats such as Russia or terrorism but also for a potential ally in their internal disputes with other EU states. Surveys by the European Council on Foreign Relations show that at least 11 European governments believe they have a “special relationship” with the United States that gives them advantages they can’t get from their European partners.
In Greece, for example, policymakers look to Washington for protection not from Russia or terrorism but from Germany’s stringent economic policies. In Poland, the government’s distrust of the EU and other European nations, especially Germany, is palpable even as Warsaw relies on them for economic support. The Polish government does not want to increase its dependence by relying on its EU partners for protection from Russia as well. Its relationship with the United States is, in part, a diversification strategy.
In short, Europeans, working together, could provide for their own security from external threats. The problem is that they also want political protection from one another. And only the United States can provide that.
This asymmetric dependence lies at the heart of the alliance and means that so far Europeans have had to make their peace with the Trump administration. Yes, European leaders frequently resort to rhetorical broadsides aimed at Trump’s numerous sins. Merkel told a campaign audience nearly a year ago that the United States could no longer be relied upon and that “it was time for Europe to take its fate in its own hands.” French President Emmanuel Macron recently took Trump to task on climate change in front of the U.S. Congress. But beyond these principled stands, they have done precious little to counter Trump.
Europe’s initial plan was to rely on the so-called adults-in-the-room theory—the idea that the generals and Republican establishment figures who surrounded Trump in his first year would blunt his worst instincts. As the thinking went, Trump might commit any number of blunders on Twitter, but U.S. policy toward Europe would remain as it had always been, and Europeans need only condemn the outrages. U.S. officials, when visiting Europe, encouraged this view by advising their European colleagues to pay no attention to the president of the United States and his tweets but rather to look at the policy. On issues such as Russia and NATO, the officials noted, U.S. policy followed its traditional course even as Trump challenged the orthodoxy on social media.
At this point, however, most of the adults in the room have left and Trump seems to be asserting more of his own influence on U.S. foreign policy. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom engaged in an extended and coordinated charm offensive to keep Trump from leaving the JCPOA. They offered all manner of concessions to Trump’s position on the Iranian deal and even gave him a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II. But in the end, all of this flattery only signaled weakness in Trump’s eyes and he ignored their pleas.
Still, Europeans do have options that could conceivably sustain the Iranian deal in the face of U.S. opposition. As French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has proposed, the EU could enact blocking legislation to protect European companies from U.S. secondary sanctions and even compensate them for losses or fines. It could seek to set up a purely European finance house to oversee euro-dominated transactions with Iran to avoid the U.S. dollar and the U.S. financial system. And it could create a European agency capable of monitoring the activities of foreign firms, as the U.S. Treasury does, to enable them to retaliate against U.S. companies.
A NEW BARGAIN
It is unlikely, however, that Europe will pursue such tough measures. European companies and especially the banks don’t really want the protection. They don’t trust European governments to protect them, and they don’t want to risk getting entangled with U.S. authorities over a relatively small market such as Iran’s.
Moreover, once the moral outrage fades, it is hard to imagine the European consensus holding in the face of concerted U.S. opposition. Poland, with its deep sense of reliance on the U.S. security guarantee, and the United Kingdom with its Brexit-induced isolation seem obvious candidates for defection. But there are many others—most every EU state still needs and wants the U.S. security guarantee.
For the longer term, however, the transatlantic alliance needs to find a more balanced bargain if it is to thrive and serve the needs of both sides of the Atlantic. Otherwise, European frustration and U.S. indifference will eventually erode the partnership from within.
Despite the constant call for increased European defense budgets on both sides of the Atlantic, more spending is only a small part of that new bargain. The more essential element is a recognition on the European side that on issues such as Iran, Europeans have interests that are distinct from those of the Americans and that they can protect them only by sticking together and driving a hard bargain with Washington. This doesn’t mean siding with Russia or China over the United States, but it does mean seeing the alliance in the same geopolitical terms that Washington does.
As of now, however, there is very little sign of that shifting. Trump’s frightening volatility, his antialliance bluster, and his penchant for destroying sacrosanct international agreements have done much to bring Europeans together. But he will need to do more still before Europe finds the political will to push back.